The problem with Ryan Murphy, a potent Hollywood advocate with a habit of crossing the wrong lines

Ryan Murphy; Emma Roberts Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Teen Vogue
Ryan Murphy; Emma Roberts Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Teen Vogue
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Ryan Murphy is acutely aware of aesthetics, as they pertain to places, eras and feeling. You don't have to have met the man to know this. Just watch any of his shows, hits and misfires alike. Especially the latter.

"Ratched" was a bomb, but the psychiatric hospital where Sarah Paulson's wicked nurse worked was an interior designer's Shangri-la. "The Politician" flopped, but Gwyneth Paltrow's impeccable costumes and framing made a strong argument for studying certain scenes after hitting the mute button.

Say what you will about those shows — they're not ugly. That is the unifying, unassailable Ryan Murphy signature: an insistent style dating back to "Nip/Tuck," and probably before that, although I never saw the set of "Popular." I did, however, accept FX's invitation to spend a day inside the polished digs of Dr. Sean McNamara and Dr. Christian Troy, Miami-based cosmetic surgeons who were the heart and loins of "Nip/Tuck." That coincides with the first time I interviewed Murphy, way back in 2006.

Our second one-on-one took place over the phone in early 2020, a couple of weeks into the pandemic lockdowns. It was as surreal of a time as the premise of "Hollywood," the reason Murphy agreed to speak with me. Eventually I reached the end of my question list, but the conversation continued as we exchanged epiphanies concerning this new world of empty streets haunted by microscopic airborne death.

During the 14-year gap between those interviews, Murphy transformed from a rising star into one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, but the overall tenor of our talks was consistent. He was pleasant, thoughtful and genuinely engaged in listening to another random human's experience with a global crisis.

Do not mistake these anecdotes as a defense of a figure who, in recent months, was accused of crossing the picket lines of his own guild after it called a historic strike, and was called out on social media by one of his regular performers for falling short on his outspoken commitment to Black and trans advocacy. Rather, they're examples of Murphy's awareness of his place in the world relative to everyone else. I've no doubts concerning Murphy's authenticity during both of those conversations. I also know the access I was granted on both of those occasions wasn't accidental.

In 2006, for Season 4 of "Nip/Tuck," the show's audience had declined after an astronomically hyped third season. The buzz meeting "Hollywood" on the verge of its 2020 premiere was sharply unenthusiastic. In both cases, Murphy could have been making an honest effort to broaden his coverage horizons beyond the usual suspects.

But I am not deluded about my place in the industry ecosystem. I don't work for a trade or a legacy news organization based in a major metropolis. I'm not a staffer at a glossy known for soul-plumbing celebrity profiles. No offense to my bosses; this is simply truth.

Sarah Paulson and Ryan Murphy
Sarah Paulson and Ryan Murphy

It's far more likely that one of Hollywood's most powerful men did not and does not view me as a threat. Granting extensive time to a Black woman journalist in support of "Hollywood," which is in part about a fictional Black starlet in 1940s Hollywood, is a good look, nothing more or less.

Such thinking must figure into any overall accounting of Murphy's stature and impact in Hollywood, in consideration of the good he does publicly and reports about interactions off-camera that aren't so positive. "When Murphy entered the industry, he sometimes struck his peers as an aloof, prickly figure; he has deep wounds from those years," a 2018 New Yorker profile shares, "although he admits that he contributed to this reputation."

And how. Murphy is a force who can launch careers and shift cultural conversations. He's also someone people are wary of angering, which, as some of my TV journalist colleagues can attest, can happen if a story casts him or his work in a light he deems insufficiently favorable.

I've heard of cases where editors, managers or writers at major outlets received phone calls from one of Murphy's reps or the man himself. One such incident involved a piece written by a woman of color, published before that rosy New Yorker deep dive.

Murphy's directing style and the transgressive nature of some of his most popular content have long made him a polarizing figure, one whose core fanbase watches whatever he does. They know that even the wrecks are handsome. Yet while most of the output created under his $300 million Netflix deal may be described thusly, "Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story," Netflix's third most popular TV title ever, is one of his greatest successes as well as one of his most problematic, angering the family members of some of Dahmer's victims.

Since 2016, however, Murphy has also established himself as a proponent for underrepresented constituencies. "Pose" featured the largest transgender cast on TV, hired trans staff in below-the-line positions, and awakened millions to Billy Porter's status as a national treasure. The show also made history through its star Michaela Jaé "Mj" Rodriguez, who became the first transgender woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama in 2022. These are all good things.

"Pose" creator Steven Canals is one of many marginalized voices elevated through Murphy's production shingle. Another is Angelica Ross, who plays Candy Ferocity in "Pose" and went on to co-star in two seasons of "American Horror Story."

As such, it came as something of a surprise – emphasis on something — when Ross unleashed a series of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, alleging that a portion of Murphy's professed activism is for show. Ross posted a screenshot of what she describes as their email exchange in July 2020 about an "American Horror Story" pitch featuring an entirely Black female cast. Ross said Murphy assured her that he was moving forward, only to ghost her afterward.

This is not merely a matter of Murphy changing his mind or his feelings about the concept. Ross explains that happens all the time in the business. But this prevented her from taking another potentially career-changing role. "I had been auditioning for THREE YEARS for [M]arvel," Ross posted on X , adding that she had to pass on an opportunity because "I was HELD in first position the whole time" on "American Horror Story."

Ross mentions other incidents on the "American Horror Story" set, including an interaction in which her co-star Emma Roberts misgendered her. Another involved a crew member wearing racist T-shirts in her presence that no one in production dealt with, until she tweeted about the incident, resulting in a call from Murphy Ross described as contentious.

If such misdoings were singular, they'd stand a better chance of being written off as glitches.

But Ross' threads dropped after Murphy infuriated fellow Writers Guild of America members by continuing to shoot the Kim Kardashian-focused "American Horror Story: Delicate," "American Sports Story" and his "AHS" spinoff "American Horror Stories," months after the WGA went on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)

Murphy, a WGA member, maintains that he abided by the strike's rules by operating solely as a director and producer, which union leaders confirmed. Does it matter that he followed his guild's strike rules if his production also crossed its picket lines?

Each of these factors hints at the paradox of Murphy's public persona, the entertainment mogul who also wants to change the way Hollywood has long operated and thinks. Business pressures like pending multimillion-dollar deals can pit those identities against each other, placing Murphy at odds with his vocal support of social justice and inclusion.

That is not simply talk, by the way – Murphy is one of a few Hollywood producers who backs his words with actions that get results. In 2016 he launched his Half Initiative with the commitment to ensuring at least half of the director positions on his shows were filled by women, with an emphasis on affording opportunities to women of color, LGBTQ+ directors and other underrepresented visionaries searching for a way into an industry still dominated by white heterosexual men.

Less than one year after launch, Ryan Murphy Productions announced that 60% of its episodic slate was helmed by women directors with 90% also meeting its goal of featuring women, minorities, BIPOC and/or queer directors. Among the Initiative's better-known mentees is Katori Hall, who went on to become the showrunner and creator of "P-Valley," and Lulu Wang, who wrote and directed the Golden Globe-nominated 2019 feature "The Farewell."

When he speaks about this and other passion projects, Murphy cites his disempowering experience of being the only gay person in the room on his first show, Fox's 1999 cult hit "Popular," as his inspiration. "I sort of grew up with just feeling like, 'I kind of want to be here, but you don't want me to be here,'" he said in a 2016 AFI interview, "and it was a feeling that I was very conscious of. The fight to be you."

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But these smaller interactions where Murphy is implied to have fallen short of his self-imposed mandate to empower the powerless demonstrate the peril of pinning one's reputation on such pledges. Failing to consistently align with those ideals in private, or when making the right choice is not the easy one, may leave the impression that the most generous acts amount little more than handwashing.

Ryan Murphy and Lea Michele
Ryan Murphy and Lea Michele

Murphy was among the highest-profile showrunners to donate $1.7 million to the Entertainment Community Fund, which provides emergency financial assistance to film and TV workers, days after the WGA strike began in May.

The Kardashian installment of Murphy's long-running FX horror series premiered recently to positive reviews, mainly related to the reality TV star's performance. That it debuted in a fall season left fallow by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA's dual strikes reminds some viewers that the production continuing while nearly every other scripted show shut down in solidarity with the WGA's walkout, a labor action overwhelming supported by the public.

In September, days before "Delicate" debuted, the Ryan Murphy Productions Assistance Fund was established with $500,000 to support the casts and crews of his studio's shows impacted by the strikes. The WGA strike officially ended on Sept. 26. SAG-AFTRA has yet to reach a deal with the AMPTP to halt its strike but has resumed negotiations.

And Murphy, who has not directly commented on Ross' allegations, is on the verge of moving his company to the Walt Disney Company, currently the home of his longtime partner FX, from Netflix, where his astronomical five-year deal recently ended.

A Hollywood Reporter interview with Ross includes a statement from an "American Horror Story" executive producer who recalled at least one conversation differently. But Ross is unequivocal in her perspective. "This is not my first time at the rodeo of dealing with that energy of white people who think that they are doing good but won't check their own selves when someone Black or of the people they're trying to help is telling them, 'You have a blind spot,'" she said.

With someone as representationally cognizant as Murphy — whether that refers to fashion or inclusion or reputation — this is worth viewing closely.